Manchester United was so bad Sunday it was inevitable that the story would be about that side first and Liverpool second. Whether the deficiencies are with the manager David Moyes or in the minds of the players no longer matters. There is only one way this appointment is going to turn out.
Moyes has had fair backing from the Stretford End faithful who defiantly belted out "20 times Man United" long after the final whistle and even on the trams back into town from Exchange Quay. The patience now, however, is about to be severely tested. Had United turned Liverpool over and gone on to beat Olympiakos and Manchester City then the season, and by extension Moyes' stewardship, would have looked all the rosier.
After this dispiriting home defeat, the games against Olympiakos and City are being approached with United fans watching from between their fingers. The Liverpool match might not have been the final nail in the Moyes coffin but it felt like the first. Being at Old Trafford these days is an unpredictable business. Eighteen points have been snaffled by visiting teams this season. Last season that total stood at nine. There is chaos — winning at United seems no longer a landmark event.
This then, for Liverpool, was a relatively straightforward away win, although there is a historical context that makes it all the sweeter for Reds fans. Three away matches in a row have been won by Brendan Rodgers' side and, after Chelsea's defeat at Aston Villa, the victory at United puts it within the title race whether Rodgers would like to acknowledge it or not. "I don't lose sleep over it," he said to the press on Sunday regarding the prospect of a first league win in 24 years.
A Premier League title win would be fitting reward for Rodgers, who endured an indifferent start to his Liverpool days but has converted an admittedly limited squad into the finest soccer team in all of Britain.
"The quality of our training, the intensity of our training ... there won't be many teams worker harder than us on a day-to-day basis on the training field to improve players and develop players," Rodgers said. There can be no denying that the Irishman's methods are working.
He has coaxed the best soccer out of Luis Suarez in the entirety of the Uruguayan's career. Laughable as it was only a few months ago, Suarez's professional ambitions are probably now best served at Anfield. That said, his improvement under Rodgers this season — and his all-round rehabilitation — has probably added 15 million pounds to his transfer value should Liverpool be pressed into cashing in.
There have of course been a few "work in progress" results this season. All in all the Reds have failed to win about a third of their games. The Christmas period losses against Manchester City and Chelsea rankled because those are the type of matches that the big teams win. Worse so that they took the lead in each. To have positioned his side back into the title race even after those two defeats to direct rivals speaks volumes about Rodgers and his squad's resilience. "We played a number of systems this year but our style remains the same," he said.
What Rodgers has in abundance that Moyes currently does not is players across the ability and experience spectrum who have all collectively yielded to what their manager has asked. No Robin van Persie-like sulking from his equivalent in the Liverpool squad, Suarez. No moaning from Steven Gerrard about a new position and a new role. "We've got hungry players at the club who want to improve, who want to develop, who want to learn," Rodgers said. "We just get on with coaching the players to be better."
Two bogeymen in the shape of Manchester City and Chelsea loom on the horizon. But unlike at Christmas, these Liverpool players will go into those matches believing they can win the title, despite the manager's assertions to the contrary.
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They are not spoiling their way toward a title, a la Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, nor are they reliant on the individual contributions of a world-class player like City can be.
Liverpool is the only team in the title race with an attractive, collective purpose that flows from the manager through to the players. Liverpool is what happens when the right manager fits the right club and is given the space he needs to work.
Wouldn't it be good if that sort of thinking was rewarded with a trophy?
MLS MOVE POSITIVE FOR ENGLAND AND DEFOE
Take it from an Irishman — if a striker is scoring goals regularly, even if it is MLS, there is no reason to leave him out of the national team. Robbie Keane, Ireland's record goal-scorer, started playing his club soccer for the LA Galaxy in 2011. Since going to California he has scored 11 goals in 23 internationals.
Keane's former Tottenham teammate Jermain Defoe started his MLS career with a bang as he scored twice for Toronto FC in an impressive win at the Seattle Sounders. Clint Dempsey's club, for the record, is regarded as one of the favored teams to lift the MLS Cup this year.
Defoe's move has been viewed very much as a backward step for the England striker coming as it does so close to the World Cup in Brazil. But the benefits of playing in MLS can certainly outweigh the negatives for a European international.
Fewer matches and a less intense tempo of play mean that the likes of Keane and Defoe will be all the fresher while national team rivals run themselves into the ground as the season draws to a close across the Atlantic. And what is better for a striker's confidence than regular goals? Nothing. While Defoe could no longer command a start for Spurs, like Keane, he will be top man in Toronto and will score plenty. That will, in turn, lift his self belief.
"The England thing is obviously going to be in the back of my mind, but I’m sure if someone said to Roy Hodgson, ‘If you haven’t seen, Jermain scored two goals,’ then maybe he won’t be surprised," Defoe told the press after his debut victory.
The striking position is a confidence position. The move to MLS could work out very well for Defoe and very well for England should Hodgson decide to take him to Brazil.